Dec 24, 2021

UT’s Mental Health Services Adjust to Life in a Pandemic

Reporting Texas

University of Texas students study and socialize on the lawn in front of the Main Building on Dec. 1, 2021, in Austin. Veronica Apodaca/Reporting Texas

Students are returning to in-person counseling at the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center after the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person sessions. 

After nearly two years of the pandemic, the CMHC has adapted its approaches to counseling to serve off-site clients as well as those in-person. Those changes, affecting both staff and students, are likely to remain part of CMHC services after pandemic restrictions have receded, officials said. 

The CMHC saw its counseling sessions drop by 10% in 2020 from the year before. About 31% of its sessions are now conducted via telehealth, which allows students to speak to providers virtually via video or chat or over the phone while maintaining confidentiality.

Katy Redd, the CMHC’s associate director for prevention, development and media relations, said that telehealth has proved uniquely helpful to some UT students. 

“For some students, they really prefer telehealth because they can do it from, you know, wherever they can find a quiet, private spot, which means if they’re not on campus that day, they can do telehealth from their dorm room and not have to trek to campus … so there’s a convenience factor there for sure,” she said. 

College students have unique needs when it comes to mental healthcare. Factors such as social pressures and lack of life skills can lead to academic and social worries, anxiety and depression. According to the CMHC, these are the top factors leading students to seek assistance.

According to Dr. Laura Stevens, the lead clinical trainer at Dell Medical School’s Center for Youth Mental Health, mental healthcare often focuses on children or older adults and tends to overlook the struggles of young adults. These struggles have been increased by the effects of the pandemic, which have made it difficult for students to connect with their peers and for recent graduates to enter the job market. 

“I think there’s definitely concern that the pandemic will increase rates of mental illness, especially in young people,” Stevens said. 

The changes caused by the pandemic were also difficult for the staff at the CMHC as they started working remotely rather than seeing students in-person and also dealt with the consequences of the pandemic on their own lives and mental health. 

 “Staff members were dealing with some of the sorts of things that students were, with drastic change in their work environment, having maybe children at home who they were having to support while still working,” Redd said. “It’s a challenge for all mental health professionals to be going through the thing and also supporting people through the thing.”

The pandemic also showed how much students need to communicate with another person, Stevens said.

“What we’ve heard overall is that this group wants an interaction with an individual,” she said. “I think we could see continued use of virtual, telephone appointments, things like that, in addition to in-person, but that might be where kind of the line is drawn.”

That line, Stevens said, is the difference between personal interaction, regardless of whether it’s in-person or remote, versus app-based healthcare that might educate users on mental health but doesn’t allow for one-on-one communication.  While these types of apps have been increasingly promoted in recent years, including the Thrive app that was developed for the CMHC, Stevens observed that the participant group of young adults in a study that she worked on was largely uninterested in them. 

As the CMHC continues to adjust to working through the pandemic and handling social distancing in a profession that requires interaction between patients and providers, telehealth seems likely to remain as an option for students. 

“I can’t predict the future, but I would say that as long as there’s a demand for the service, we would continue offering it,” Redd said. 

Like Redd and the staff at the CMHC, Stevens believes that it is most beneficial to offer patients the choice between virtual and in-person counseling. 

“We’re kind of figuring out what works, what doesn’t work, what do people like, what do people not like, including the providers, not only the people receiving the services,” she said.